Does walking build muscle?

Wondering, does walking build muscle? We look at how you can get toned legs without setting foot in the weights room

Image shows man walking his dog
(Image credit: Getty)

Walking is a great example of cardiovascular exercise, but does walking build muscle? There are many benefits of walking; it can be done anywhere, anytime, and without the need for expensive gear or sophisticated equipment. We’ll be getting to the bottom of how walking affects your muscles and whether it’s possible to get toned legs without setting foot in the gym.  

When you walk, your body will use your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles to power your movement. Thanks to centuries of evolution, humans have become extremely efficient when it comes to moving on two feet for long periods of time. As muscle building requires the presence of mechanical tension and muscle fiber damage, it may be quite tricky to grow muscles just by walking alone. Still, you may see some great results if you vary your training routine or add some resistance by using a weighted vest or ankle weights.

We’ll look at whether walking can indeed build muscle and what, if anything, can be done to speed up the process. Plus, our guide to the best shoes for walking has some great options if you’re ready to get your steps in.

Does walking build muscle?

Walking is a type of aerobic physical activity and mostly engages the so-called slow-twitch muscle fibers, which create long, lean physiques of long-distance runners and other endurance athletes. These fibers are very different from the fast-twitch muscles that bodybuilders and sprinters heavily engage to increase their lean mass. For a long time, fitness professionals had said that muscle building simply cannot happen through aerobic activities.

More recently though, that viewpoint has changed. According to an article published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, cardiovascular exercise can indeed trigger skeletal muscle growth. Still, certain conditions have to be met to make a substantial difference to our body composition.

Dan Roberts, strength and conditioning expert and owner of Dan Roberts Group fitness coaching, agrees. “Walking can build muscle for some people and it can’t for others,” he says. “The key variables are how intense the walking is, how heavy you are, and the flatness of the surface. Your lower body muscles – namely quads, calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, and little bits of abs and core – will only grow if they are under stress. So for example, if you are very overweight and don’t do any other form of leg training, then you walk up and down hills, walking is very much a strength training exercise for you and the key muscles will grow a little bit.”

Two people enjoying a walk in a park

(Image credit: Getty Images)

But if you’re not overweight, and lift weights and run regularly, then walking will do absolutely nothing for your lower body strength, he says.

So if you’re already fairly fit and strong, are there any training methods that could help you to build muscle while walking? Definitely. Choosing difficult, uneven, and steep surfaces and terrains can be a great way to challenge your muscles. If you’ve ever had to climb a huge hill, you’ll know exactly how much effort it took to get to the top. Mountain hiking and trail walking can place enough mechanical stress on your muscles to trigger the muscle damage needed for growth. 

And if you live in a relatively flat area, try interval training. You can increase the intensity of your workout by doing one 30-60 second bout of speed walking, followed by a minute or two of moderate pace marching. Repeat it as many times as possible throughout your workout. You'll also benefit from learning how to choose walking shoes to keep you safe while you walk. 

Can walking with a weighted vest build muscle?

Resistance training is one of the main types of exercise used to develop and grow muscle. It’s not surprising then that weighted exercise equipment designed with walkers in mind is growing in popularity. One of the best ways to build strong and toned legs while walking is to use a weighted vest. 

Weighted vests come in different shapes and sizes, but the main idea stays the same – it’s a piece of clothing with weights attached to it. You can find vests that are relatively light (between 11-33 lbs/5-15 kg) and suitable for beginners and people recovering from injuries. But it’s not uncommon to find vests that weigh 44 lbs/20 kg or more, made mostly for bodybuilders and advanced exercisers. These may come with hooks and straps that allow you to attach even more weight to them if you want to increase the intensity of your workout further.

Are weighted vests safe?

Weighted vests are potentially the best type of equipment for walkers, as they are unlikely to cause any serious injury or strain. Their load is distributed evenly across the torso, minimizing any unnatural stress and tension on your arms, legs, and feet. Weighted vests also allow a fairly unrestricted movement, making it easy to use them on a daily basis.       

They are also tolerated well by people who don’t exercise regularly, according to findings by the American Council of Exercise.

A weighted vest is a great tool to help you burn more calories. Researchers from the University of Iowa found that if you wear a vest that’s equivalent to about 20% of your body weight, you’ll burn 14% more calories. What does that mean in practice? A woman who weighs 63kg, for example, will be able to burn an additional 30 calories on a 45-minute walk.

Still, there are some disadvantages to wearing a weighted vest. If you suffer from problematic knees, ankles, hips, or feet, you may end up placing unsustainable pressure on your body and develop an injury. In this case, less weight on your joints would be a better option – and there are always other methods to achieve your muscle gaining goals. 

Weighted vests can also be expensive and hard to store. You may want to consider wearing a heavy backpack instead. This way, you can have your essentials with you and get a great workout at the same time. But it’s worth noting that it may feel uncomfortable as the weight would not be distributed evenly and the straps could cause you some discomfort.

For other ways to work on building leg muscle, check out our features on how to deadlift with dumbbells or lunges with weights.

Anna Gora
Anna Gora

Anna Gora is a Health Writer for Future Plc, working across Coach, Fit&Well, LiveScience, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a BSc degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.